REVIEW: Eloquent Body

Cover_EloquentBody_Front_96dpiEloquent Body

Dawn Garisch

Modjaji

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates.

His further insistence on the primacy of the abstract over the material realm has been appropriated to feed the lasting view that the proper lenses for conducting such examinations of life and human understanding were those of reason, science and knowledge, as variously interpreted through the ages. The emotions, arts, intuition and embodiment were, for the most part, correspondingly undervalued.

But recent developments, notably in neuroscience, have forced re-evaluation of our ‘irrational’ side as an intrinsic part of what means to be human.

Eloquent Body tackles the relationship between these worlds from both perspectives. This contrasts with the spate of books from such as Johan Lehrer (How we decide; Imagine: How creativity works), Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness; Learned Optimism; Flourish) and others, favouring that of the abstract scientist even when addressing humanity’s affective dimensions.

Garisch’s own life, and her metamorphosis ‘from a doctor who writes into a writer who doctors’, is the central thread.

Yet this is not entirely a memoir. Unlike, say, Rachel Cusk, whose experiences of motherhood and divorce become the springboard for wider reflections, Garisch’s primary concern is the reflective inner pilgrimage itself. So this accomplished novelist (nominated for the Commonwealth Prize for Africa) and poet (winner of the inaugural Sol Plaatjie European Union Poetry Award) has turned to non-fiction to chart where ‘the two streams of [her] life converge’. It is a ‘point in place and time’ towards which she has ‘been heading … for years’, during which her life as ‘a doctor and a novelist, a scientist and a dancer, a researcher and a poet’ has reflected many of the dichotomies of the wider world.

It is a persuasive exploration of what it means to pursue a fully integrated life of health and wholeness. I suspect that rather more of us hanker after a sense of coherence than share philosopher of liberalism John Rawls’ view that it should be seen as “irrational or more likely as mad” to desire a value-framework for guiding life’s choices.

In aiming to make “a contribution to the pool of ideas and works that aims to find out who we are, and why we are here”, this doctoring writer-poet unsurprisingly focusses on “the drive towards life as it manifests in the body, in illness and the creative act”.

Garisch begins by recounting how her own illness and her small son’s accident forced her “to reconsider, fundamentally, my understanding of myself, my body and how the world works.”  This included realising the important difference between healing and curing.

She then considers how failure to embrace the reality of our embodiment can often contribute, directly or indirectly, to injury or illness – while carefully noting this is not always the case.

She addresses the roles fear, anxiety and self-deception can play (for example, smoking to “help” handle stress), especially in our commoditised, politicised world. As someone who once suffered a spinal problem soon after repeatedly describing a particular event as “the final straw [which breaks the camel’s back]”, I have sympathy for her account of the linkages which can arise between our conscious, unconscious, and bodily selves.

Garisch then reviews how both scientists and artists “investigate the truth” in ways that can seem incompatible, before proposing better strategies that draw on both approaches, for dealing not only with anxiety, but with the challenges of healthy, holistic living for ourselves and our planet.  In this way she indicates the applicability of her approach in seeking bigger questions embracing the environment and global economic justice, with more appropriate measures of health and growth.

Yet, perhaps because of the more global audience for which Garisch has written fiction, this is not a particularly South African book (apart from recording her brief time as ship’s doctor aboard the SS Agulhas). She makes few connections with the particular fears, anxieties, and ill-health suffered on so many levels by our nation and its communities. This important subject remains the task of another book, or another writer.

But Garisch is effective in what she does tackle. Underlying her clear, clean, sentences (woven through with vibrant poetic imagery) is a thorough-going intellectual rigour. Her extensive quotes and references (with comprehensive endnotes for the curious reader wanting to investigate further – though I could then have done without the intrusion of a small number of footnotes) are the carefully placed stepping stones by which her journey of exploration proceeds.

Modest and generous, Garisch readily acknowledges that she “too is deep in the soup, clinging to a noodle”, and that there are neither easy nor one-size fits all answers. What works for her may not resonate with another, and it is “necessary to find the particular and personal images that speak to the motif of each individual’s life.”

She warns against necessary listening to emotions becoming license to narcissistic self-indulgence, and encourages the “slow steady focus [of] patient gardening”. Yet at times, for all her frustrations at wayward patients, her largely optimistic view of human nature risks underplaying our capacity deliberately to do harm. I also wondered whether she might have said more about perceived relationships between illness, and punishment and guilt – though perhaps these are voiced more to clergy than doctors.

At its best, this ought to be a difficult book, for to read it seriously is to accept Garisch’s challenging invitation to pursue our creative side, to “wake up to ourselves” and “bear witness to the truth of our own lives.”  While she offers advice and example, it remains the case that “no-one [else] can teach us how to find out who we are and what we have to say in our own unique way.”

I like to think that Socrates, who insisted, approvingly, on the non-rational role of the muses in poetry, would have lent his own encouragement.

Sarah Rowland Jones, diplomat, priest and poet, has a master’s degree in mathematics and a doctorate in philosophy of religion.


  • This reviewed first appeared in the Cape Times in 2012

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